There was a weird period of time in college where I decided self-disclosure was the way to go. I was heavily into angst at the time, mainlining The Smiths and Oscar Wilde and caught up in the notion that because I saw myself as different from my peers this was somehow worth advertising. Talking loudly and at length about feeling melancholy and unloved was a way for me to wreathe myself in superiority, to assert that even though I was a student at a largely white, fairly affluent Midwestern college, I was different from my peers. Better.
What a self-involved little twerp I was.
My thinking – or whatever passed for it as a 20-year-old dude – was that by revealing anything that I thought was worth knowing about myself (a fairly specious line of reasoning all by itself) I’d be projecting my true self, which would be irresistible to all the 20-year-old ladies who adored Michael Stipe and really appreciated honesty. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but it was probably my version of Campbell Scott’s character in Singles, who hits on Kyra Sedgwick’s character by claiming he doesn’t have an act, and what she sees is what she gets. Her response, though, is the only truthful line in the scene: “I think that a) you have an act, and b) not having an act is your act.”
“Honesty” was my act, and I put it in quotes here purposefully. My honesty wasn’t any more honest than anyone else’s. I was supposed to be soulful because I could recite Morrissey lyrics and deep because I openly admitted to reservoirs of self-loathing, as though that made me dashing instead of pathetic. But it was an affectation, a way of drawing attention to myself. I mean, not totally. I’ve wrestled with issues of anxiety and depression since at least junior high, but adopting “woe is me” as a lifestyle choice was just another way of wearing a Joy Division t-shirt without having to do the laundry.
I couldn’t help but think of all this as I read Look at Me, Jennifer Egan’s powerhouse of a novel about several characters all wrestling with conceptions of identity, how much to reveal, and how to be appreciated for who they (think they) really are. It’s a dense, multi-layered text that reads as breezily as a beach mystery and a book that manages to say Real Things about 21st Century life without preaching. It initially seems to be centered on one character, Charlotte, a past-her-prime fashion model who suffers through a horrific car accident that destroys her face and then multiple reconstructive surgeries to rebuild it. She comes out the other side not looking like her old self – people she knows look right past her in restaurants and need to be re-introduced to her at parties – and while the book started promisingly, I wasn’t sure Egan could sustain my interest in Charlotte for 500+ pages.
But then Egan begins to weave in threads from other characters, deftly connecting them in ways that were both unexpected and inevitable (but no less satisfying for it). In addition to Charlotte the Model (CTM), Egan takes up the question of personal identity in a variety of ways and with a range of characters (in both New York City, where CTM currently lives, and Rockford, IL, where she was born and raised) that never seems forced:
- Charlotte – This second Charlotte is the 16-year-old daughter of CTM’s childhood best friend. Bookish and shy, she falls in love with a much older man as a reaction to her superficial friends and as a way of feeling important to someone worldly.
- Moose – The uncle of Charlotte II, Moose is a disgraced Yale professor now teaching (and seeking redemption) at a college in Rockford. He begins holding private lessons with Charlotte II to help her see the world the way he sees it.
- Michael West – A high school math teacher with a secret. To say more – other than the fact that it deals with the core of what it means to be American – would be to spoil one of the book’s great pleasures.
- Anthony Halliday – An alcoholic private detective who begins a dalliance with CTM in the course of investigating the disappearance of Z., one of CTM’s New York friends.
All five of these characters present a different way of unpacking the book’s title, and Egan probably could have given us a satisfying book just based on their lives. But she introduces more characters halfway through the novel and very nearly flirts with obsolescence in the process when she brings Thomas and his plan for a website that documents the lives of Real People™ into the mix.
(Details of the site, for those who are interested: As Thomas describes it, it’ll launch with a handful of Ordinary People – the normal folks, like us – and a handful of Extraordinary People –models, actors, captains of industry – at its core. They’ll provide text-based journal entries where they relate the details of their day, but then eventually photos, music, streaming video, and filmed reenactments of key events from the person’s life will be incorporated into each individual page. The idea is to gradually expand the database and in the process bring the world closer together. From the site we learn about and develop empathy for the people whose lives we can now access 24 hours a day, and by extension we develop the same empathy for people like them we meet on a daily basis. It’s social media as altruism, before social media as we know it existed.)
Keep in mind that Look at Me was written in 1999 (and published in 2001), pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook, pre-everything else we now know about the pervasiveness of social media. There’s the risk that Thomas’ site and his proposal to make CTM a cornerstone of this new venture will look quaint and archaic in our current culture. But somehow it doesn’t, which speaks to just how prescient Egan was, both in devising the concept for the site and for anticipating the still-thorny question of just how much we present of ourselves online is authentic and how much is fabricated for effect. Much of the second half of the book is focused on that question as Egan peels back the layers of each of the main characters, gradually revealing whatever lies at the core.
As always, when I dwell too much on the details of plot I feel like I fail to sell the book’s quality. Put simply, Look at Me is a rich, resonant book, especially for anyone who’s wrestled with the question of who they really are and how they reconcile present with past – which, I imagine, is most of us. In the context of how I began this review – considering identity and how we choose to present it to the world – it perhaps makes the most sense to close with the passage that hit closest to home and which speaks most profoundly to how I think of myself now in relation to the person I was. I might not be the 20-year-old drip I used to be, but when I think in terms of what people expected of me when I was younger, I feel like I’ve got a long way to go. And the clock is ticking.
When Moose imagined himself as a child, he pictured a boy watching him across a doorway, through a screen, and a bubble of sorrow would break in his chest, as if he were seeing someone who had died or vanished inexplicably, a milk carton child, as if some vital connection between himself and that boy had been lost. And despite all that Moose knew he was achieving now or trying to achieve, still he felt – inexplicably – that he had failed to fulfill the promise of that little boy, and was being visited by his unhappy ghost.
Ryan Adams – Gold (2001)